“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
~ William Shakespeare, "As You Like It"
“Federico!!” Proxima screamed, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”
But it was already too late. The Dyonuxiot tendrils shot up onto the roof, and a dozen Methist guards, in their true form, leapt onto the rooftop. There was fury seething in their hideous faces.
“There’s no time!” said Roderigo, “Let’s go!”
He pushed at Proxima, but it was as if she had been frozen in anguish. Rooted. Shocked. In another world.
“Federico…” she whispered.
Roderigo slapped her, “Go! Go! Go!” he barked.
She turned and ran, bounding onto the next rooftop, Medea at her side, and turned just enough to see Federico being attacked by the guards.
* * * * *
The three remaining Half-Castes hid in an alleyway huddled together under the magical qualities of the IVC. They would be invisible in this position, at least until the cloak over-heated once the battery ran low. There were guards and soldiers milling around everywhere, looking for the remaining assassins, who’d all gotten away and vanished into thin air.
“I think we can move out now,” said Roderigo, “The coast seems to be clear. Vixen, why don’t you…?”
As he faced her, he knew it was no use in telling her anything. Proxima was dead to the world. Federico’s failure was on her head. Federico’s life was on her head.
What am I going to tell Viola? she thought, I never should have brought them. Any of them.
Medea was also quiet, weeping silently, cuddling up next to Roderigo. All that adult-ish pride gone and all the dignity evaporated.
Roderigo sighed. He felt a stab of sympathy for his lost… comrade, but not so much that he’d forgotten the situation they were all in.
“Come on, you two!” he whispered angrily, “We can cry for the poor git later. But we have to get back to the forest first!”
Medea completely ignored him, “What will happen to Federico? Will he be okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Roderigo, “All he did was injure an innocent civilian and help in killing the Minister of Propaganda. They’ll ask him a few questions over a cup o’ tea and a plate of biscuits. You know, that kind of thing. Nothing major like treason at all!”
Medea sobbed louder.
“Oh, cut out that racket!” snapped Roderigo, “You want us to get caught?”
“We’ll get him back,” said Proxima, all of a sudden, sitting up straight, “But for now, Roderigo’s right. We need to get out of here. We don’t want to all end up in Methist prison. We can help Federico later.” But somewhere in the back of Proxima’s mind, she doubted it.
Federico’s gone, she thought, And he won’t be coming back. You’re safer sticking with that thought.
Medea sniffed and then nodded, “Alright,” she said softly, “What are we supposed to do? How do we get out?”
“We’ll wait a little longer,” Roderigo interjected, “Get some sleep, kiddo, we’ll leave when it’s a little darker and the guards on patrol are more or less likely to be dozing off. Hell, they may well be – they ain’t never had an attack like this since… well, since: ever!”
* * * * *
Proxima shivered and sniffed in the dark, damp forest. The rain drizzled down on them as the clouds overhead covered up the stars and moon in the sky. The down pour had been heavier a moment ago, but now it was just a light pitter-patter. Proxima pulled down her hood and looked up, her gaze meeting with Roderigo’s.
“This rain is a blessing, it is,” he said, “Hopefully, it’ll get rid of our scent in Escarr.”
Blessing? Really? After I just killed a person? thought Proxima.
Proxima shrugged the thought aside, “How’s Cub keeping?”
The pair looked in the same direction.
Some way off, Medea was huddled up into a ball, rocking herself back and forth – her weeping drowned out by the rain.
“She ain’t gonna be alright for some time,” said Roderigo, blankly, “You ought to go and talk to her.”
“Me?” said Proxima, “Why me?”
“I don’t know, Vixen, do I look like the sentimental type?”
“Right now you do,” Proxima retorted.
“Look, Cub ain’t nothing like you, a’right? Go talk to her, she won’t bite your head off,” said Roderigo, “Besides, it ain’t like she’s angry or nothing. She’s just a bit sad.”
Proxima clenched her teeth, “Flattery will never get you anywhere, you know that, Roderigo?”
He snorted, “O’ course I do. I just flatter because it makes me feel better.”
Proxima ignored him, and got up; striding towards Medea, her boots squelching in the mud. As she approached, Medea took no notice of her.
Proxima cocked her head to a side, “Medea?”
“Go away!” she squeaked, “I don’t want to talk.”
Proxima sighed, “I was going to ask you if you wanted my coat.”
Medea looked up and sniffed, “What?” Her face was red and her eyes were puffy.
Proxima shrugged, “It’s cold, I reckoned you’d want it.”
“I’m not a little kid.”
“I never said you were.”
“Then why would you ‘reckon’,” Medea sniveled, “that I’d want your stupid coat?”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s because I care?” Proxima sat down next to Medea, “I’m not all bad, Medea.”
Medea hugged her knees, “…I know.”
“Then talk to me, Cub,” said Proxima, “Why are you such a wreck? It’s not like you have to explain everything to everyone when we get back home.”
“I… I don’t know how to explain it,” said Medea, “I kind of knew Federico from before, you know? Not as a friend, but Claudia and Viola were friends – so I saw Federico a whole lot. He was just always there. What will happen to him now, Proxima?” Medea began sobbing again, “What will happen to him, now that the Methists have got him?”
Proxima closed her eyes, her brows furrowing, “Do you want the honest answer?” she said softly.
Medea wailed at the comment buried her face in her knees.
Proxima put an arm around the younger girl, “Listen, Cub, do you know why Federico did that? Did he tell you anything about it? The shooting, I mean?”
Medea nodded, took a few deep breaths, and said, “He thought that the third target was Mose Ruict. He said, if he got the chance, he’d shoot at him and get rid of him. He said he wanted to prove to you he wasn’t a fool!”
Proxima’s mouth parted, speechless.
Medea continued, “But, of course he was! He never should have done that without consulting you first! He was an idiot to think that the pistol would have such a long shooting range! Now he’s gone, and we might never see him again. He’s going to die, isn’t he, Proxima? Those bloody monsters are going to kill him! I never should have egged him on to shoot at the ambassador. Maybe, if I’d stopped him, maybe… he’d… he’d…”
“Shh,” said Proxima, her voice still catching in her throat, “Shh. Medea you can’t blame yourself for what happened to Federico. I might share a part of the blame, but not you. He might be kept in a prison somewhere, and we might be able to break him out. But we have to keep our heads first! Okay? Stop crying,” Proxima put a finger under Medea’s chin and lifted her head up, “I promised to bring you all home. Federico might be a gone case, but you’re still here, Cub. Don’t worry. Maybe, maybe we can get him back.”
Medea stared at Proxima for a while and then nodded, “I want to be a-alone,” she said, “For a little bit… If that’s okay?”
Proxima patted the girl’s head, “Alright. Roderigo will be building a fire soon, if he can find any dry wood. But until then, put something warm on, or you’ll catch a cold.”
Proxima walked off, and her heart sank as soon as she turned around. So, they had all been hard on Federico. That’s why he’d been idiot enough to make his own plans.
No, thought Proxima, I’m the idiot. I never should have said those things to Fed. Now, there might be no coming back for him… Urgh! What am I going to tell Viola?
Proxima sat down in her usual spot and Roderigo asked her immediately, “Well?”
“Federico did it to prove he wasn’t a fool,” she mumbled in reply.
Roderigo raised a brow at the remark, “I was asking about Medea.”
“I know you didn’t like him,” said Proxima, turning her head to look at him, “But he was one of us too.”
“He was heading in that direction from the beginning, Vixen; even you must have seen that.”
“But I only made it worse.”
“No, you didn’t! He got what was coming to him,” said Roderigo, “What was he trying to do anywho?”
“He was aiming at Mose Ruict,” said Proxima, “He reckoned the ambassador was the third Target.”
“But with Cato’s little revolver? Go on, tell me that ain’t stupid.”
“He wouldn’t have had anything to prove,” said Proxima, becoming angry, “if I hadn’t called him a fool!”
“What? You gonna kick yourself at every turning point?” Roderigo stood up, equally angry, “You keep doing that, and you’re gonna end up in the same place he is: Dead! He did what he did and he’s paying the price. You’re doing what you’re doing and you’re paying your price! His death or capture or whatever ain’t anybody’s fault but his own. HE HAD IT COMING TO HIM!”
Proxima stared at the man hard in the face, but just shrugged and didn’t say more. She folded her arms and looked away.
“I really wonder what’s wrong with you, sometimes,” said Roderigo, he leaned against a tree and slid down, squatting, “Always. Always at odds with yourself! I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking he should have been left home, in the Empire. And me and Medea too. Only you shoulda come, because you reckon it’s your burden and nobody else’s,” Proxima looked up a little at the remark, but did not look in Roderigo’s direction. “Well, let me tell you something, mate – this ain’t nobody’s responsibility! This weren’t your idea. You’re barely an adult, for goodness sake! How much could anyone possibly expect from you? You killed a General! On your own! You killed a Minister o’ Propaganda! You ought to be proud o’ yourself,” Roderigo paused, “But you ain’t. You ain’t cause it weren’t your idea and you never would ‘ave done it if you weren’t forced to. Never. Not in the next million bloomin’ years. You shouldn’t be here either, Proxima, along with the rest of us. You should be in college or trying to get a job in a restaurant or married or pregnant or dead or something. But not here. Medea should be in school. Fed… he should be in a lunatic asylum and me with him. Do you see what I’m getting at, or have I been talking to the trees? This ain’t your fault. None of what’s happened is. You didn’t do none of it, as far as you’re concerned, but do you know who did?”
Proxima paused, but then stared at Roderigo. It was as if he’d read her mind. Nay, her thoughts from the very beginning of the journey. She sighed, shivering a little, and then said, “The Empire.”
“Exactly,” said Roderigo, “The Empire. The Empire. The Empire. They sent you here. They’re holding Cato. They’re telling you who to kill and who to spare. And they don’t care if you or any of us dies. We are expendable. Completely and utterly, flippin’ expendable! This is their fault, Proxima. Why don’t I feel sorry for Fed? Because, he asked to come even though he and everyone else knew he was going to flop. Scratch that, he demanded to come. If he’s dead now, so what? You gave him a chance to spare himself and he didn’t take it. Now he’s screwed up, and you want to take the blame? I’m sorry, but you got five more targets to kill – you can’t afford to blame yourself, kid.”
Proxima played with a twig, “You were right,” she said, “You aren’t the sentimental type.”
Roderigo smacked his forehead, “Look, I know I’m a lunatic but that don’t mean I don’t talk –”
“I was listening,” assured Proxima, “I just… I don’t know. Never mind.”
“No, please: go on.”
“Why are you so adamant in helping me?” she asked, “And don’t avoid the question this time – you’ve done that twice before already.”
Roderigo opened and closed his mouth. He paused and sucked in his cheeks. He wasn’t angry. Just tongue-tied.
“I… er,” he began, “I’m not… um… I don’t… How do I…?” he looked up at the trees as the shower of rain died away.
Proxima was about to put in a word, when all of a sudden the Imocs began to bleep loudly. She slipped the chain off and looked at the tiny mechanism glow. She turned it to the ‘answer’ setting.
The Twelve appeared in front of them.